“I would say I do a mad dance between the kind of poetry that attempts to clarify detail and the kind of hurricane that is necessary for performance,” says Staceyann Chin, a 34-year-old, New York-based poet, writer and performance artist of Jamaican and Chinese heritage. “Mad dance” and “hurricane” are appropriately intense words to describe the work of this outspoken woman.
In 2002, Chin spent eight months on Broadway as part of the cast of Def Poetry Jam. The Broadway role certainly boosted her career, but Chin had already made a name for herself with HBO’s Def Poetry Jam series, solo performances across the country and abroad, and one-woman shows with the acclaimed Culture Project and other theaters in downtown Manhattan.
Her poetry addresses a host of potentially controversial topics, from war to feminism to race and religion, and she delivers her words in performances pregnant with an intense, often revolutionary spirit.
Regarding her Broadway turn and her wide recognition, Chin says: “I think I gained a lot of respect in the performance theater world, but it wasn’t a straight trajectory. People think that you go to Broadway and then your career is made, but we were poets, and we were playing ourselves on Broadway. So I didn’t play a role and then [do] a great job and then people would offer me a different job. It was more, ‘Oh, we like Staceyann Chin and what she says on stage … so let’s put her on Broadway.’ But Staceyann Chin is still a product.”
Chin adds: “The more things you do, the more you get exposed. And the more you get exposed, the more America can sell you as a product. And the more America can sell you as a product, the more you’re able to pay your rent and buy shoes and panties and tampons and so on.”
Before she became a cultural product, Chin grew up in Jamaica. After what she describes as “violent, negative experiences” related to her coming-out while in college there, she resolved to move to the United States. She wanted to be able to be in a relationship and not have to hide it, and recalls deciding, “I will not remain in this country [Jamaica] as long as the homophobia is like this.”
But Chin says she has a hard time talking about homophobia in Jamaica without feeling as if she is betraying Jamaicans. “I know that kind of painting of my country makes people look at Jamaicans in a different way, and it shows us as people who are violent,” she says. “It’s like when something wrong is going on in your house, and it’s difficult to talk about it because you carry a bit of shame about it too.
“So I get over it by trying to explain it in sociopolitical terms. Because very rich people don’t care if you want to put your panties on your head to the tune of ‘God Bless America,’ but it’s the poor people who are very concerned that Mexicans are calling themselves Americans but are flying the Mexican flag above the American one in their homes. … It’s the poor who need something to hold onto, and sometimes that something turns ugly when there’s obviously nothing to hold onto.”
Chin has performed in a wide array of venues and formats, which has brought her in touch with a broad audience, including college students and the so-called underground crowd, mainstream television viewers, downtown theater-goers, as well as what she refers to as the more mature kind of people who can afford Broadway tickets.
She is about to bring her act before a group of high school students, a crowd that gets a toned-down version of her typically blunt performances. She thinks it’s important to reach this young audience and recognizes she can’t do that if she can’t get past the school board.
“High school students need to be exposed to the politics, but at the same time, it needs to be in a way that they can understand it and I can get to say it,” Chin says. “Because if I’m censored off the stage, then they will never hear anyone talk about race and sexuality in that kind of provocative way.” She adds that she has never made any kind of concession for an adult audience.